Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is this week traveling to Eritrea and Ethiopia on an important visit that shows how Rome is coming back to interact with two of its former colonies. Italy’s relationships with the two nations have been either non-existent or tense for decades. But this trip is especially significant as it represents a paradigm shift: The previous Italian government sought to solve African problems by allowing Africans to stay in Italy, while this government thinks that instead it is necessary to help Africans in their home countries with healthy and transparent cooperation.
The visit will see Conte offer investment, knowhow, and business and cultural synergy. His proposals will be strong because they are being pushed by the whole government, starting from the League, which has often been accused of racism. The League has called for an end to the UN sanctions on Eritrea that the Matteo Renzi-led government supported, but which have strangled the Horn of Africa’s economy.
Recalling the peace deal signed in Saudi Arabia between Asmara and Addis Ababa last month, the League’s Paolo Grimoldi, who is vice-president of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Commission, wrote: “We congratulate the leaders of Eritrea and Ethiopia for bringing peace to the region. We see that not many in Europe celebrate this historic passage: Perhaps many prefer the wars that empty Africa of its energy, force young people to emigrate and enrich the people traffickers. But now we need to help this peace process by removing the absurd sanctions that strangle Eritrea, also damaging the Ethiopian and the Horn economies.”
The visit will see Conte offer investment, knowhow, and business and cultural synergy
Another imminent fundamental step is the international conference on Libya that Italy will host in Sicily in November, and that should see the presence of all the Libyan factions, representatives of Arab countries and also the Russians and Americans, who will surely be represented by foreign ministers Sergey Lavrov and Mike Pompeo, but perhaps even by presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Here too the differences with the previous government are vast. The Italian left, which is deeply tied to Paris, pushed Italy into the catastrophic intervention in Libya, while the right wing today, in tune with the US, claims a leading and not subordinate role in European policies toward North Africa, condemning the constant French interference in Libya and accusing Paris of impeding peace in the Mediterranean.
So what is the true attitude of Italians toward Africa today? Reading the international press, it would seem to be a country populated by racists, led by a fascist dictatorship whose only objectives are to hunt down immigrants and abandon Africa to a destiny of misery. The reality is different. During the conflict in Libya, all of Italy has received large numbers of migrants, yet — despite mounting impatience at the excessive numbers that make integration difficult and despite anger toward the EU, which has left Rome alone in facing the crisis — men and women of every color and religion circulate on the streets of the major cities without problems.
During European summits, the only minister who every time asks for urgent and massive economic aid for Africa is Matteo Salvini. The deputy prime minister did this most recently in Vienna last month, when he quarreled with Jean Asselborn, his colleague from Luxembourg. Knowing well how thousands of African immigrants end up being exploited in the fields of Southern Italy or, if women, sexually abused, Salvini said that Italy does not want to see new slaves. His point was in defense of Africans and against the trafficking of human beings, but the media deliberately transformed this by reporting that the Italian vice-premier had offended Africans by calling them “slaves.” A real fake news story.
No one has reported that, in Vienna, Salvini praised the great and positive synergy with Tunisia and Morocco in terms of combating mass emigration. Beyond the propaganda, however, the facts speak clearly. Salvini’s first official trip after taking office was to Tripoli, where he met President Fayez Al-Sarraj, and he has also been to Egypt, where he was received by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, and Tunisia to meet President Beji Caid Essebsi. These are all destinations on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, where the Italian government often travels very willingly and receives a warm welcome, whereas every trip to Brussels is a nightmare, as relations with Berlin are cold and those with Paris are very, very cold.
Italian-African relations are made up of many facets, but the most interesting ones are unfortunately kept largely hidden.
- Max Ferrari is a journalist and politician. He is a former parliamentary journalist, a war correspondent in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, and director of a TV channel. He is an expert in geopolitics and energy policy. Twitter: @MaxFerrari.